While the beats can't help but stick out upon first listen, it's the quieter tracks that truly shine.
It seems that Future Sound of London have been tinkering for some time now. Having spent the last few years releasing little more than archival compilations and side projects under a variety of names, Garry Cobain and Brian Dougans seem awfully noncommittal about producing a true "next" FSOL album. In turn, while fans are for the moment content with the recent flood of old but unreleased material that Future Sound of London have been putting out alongside new music from aliases like Yaze and Amorphous Androgynous, there's a certain restlessness to the waiting. It's as if we're being teased. Cobain and Dougans are making music, and they're obviously not averse to flouting the Future Sound name, and still, we have yet to see anything that looks like a "proper" followup to Dead Cities.
Environments 3 does not alter that recent pattern, but along with the preceding Environments album, it does seem to indicate an uptick in the willingness of Cobain and Dougans to create new music under the Future Sound banner.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to see any of the Environments releases as such, given that the names of Environments II and Environments 3 indicate that they're somehow sequels to the long-promised Environments release, an album that languished in Future Sound myth for 13 years before it was finally released in 2007. As far as anyone could tell, Environments II was completely new music (and excellent new music at that), but its link to the original Environments and the question of the sources of the sounds keep it from being considered the long-awaited "new Future Sound album". The same fate, of course, befalls Environments 3, though at least in this case the source and inspiration for some of the familiar sounds and beats is obvious: Dead Cities is the basis of Environments 3.
Like Environments II, Environments 3 is a largely ambient release, another thing that separates these albums from "classic" Future Sound, though plenty of beats certainly shine through amongst the more traditionally ambient tracks. "The Empty Land" is one that is firmly in Dead Cities territory, with an insistent, somewhat jazzy beat, lots of twinkly sounds, and an operatic sample that gives it color. Putting that track early on gives old fans something to latch onto, while the later "Surface Water" is the sort of "big beats in a huge room" piece that reminds us what grabbed us about Future Sound in the first place.
While the beats can't help but stick out upon first listen, the quieter tracks are what truly shine on Environments 3. The opener, "Viewed from an Obscure Angle", is a beautiful piano-synth-static exercise that recalls the mastery of space Future Sound employed on Lifeforms. "Accompaniment for Melodious Expression" is one of Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works gone wrong, featuring a heavily delayed and chaotic repeated saxophone line that eventually gives way to peaceful acoustic guitar. The penultimate track, "Heart Sick Chord", its title a play on the harpsichord that forms its basis, adds flutes and violins to the mix. It also piles melodic layer on top of melodic layer for the sake of a beautiful pastiche that could easily have scored a session of the PlayStation 3's majestic Flower video game.
The point here is that regardless of its source material or its place in the Future Sound of London pantheon, Environments 3 is a lovely album worthy of the Future Sound name. The duo may no longer be challenging their audience, but they are engaging that audience, and for now, just having them back and doing something is enough.
Of course, if they were to finally get around to following up Dead Cities, I don't think anyone would mind.